Category Archives: Things That Happened

Dearest readers, please enjoy this random update…

Instead of rambling on about god-knows-what like I usually do, I’m going to get straight to the point.

My Chinese Future Husband is now my Chinese Actual Husband. I know! I bet you never saw that coming! (Or maybe you did because you realised that I was far too busy staring at Mr Wang’s nose freckles and cheek dimples to write any blog posts. Oops. Sorry.)

I know you probably want to know the whole story, and I will tell you the whole story eventually, I promise. But not here. I think my “Life after Delhi” has moved on kind of spectacularly, and so I’ve decided to start afresh. Here:

http://theinnermongolian.wordpress.com

So please go and have a look, and subscribe if you feel like it, and I hope you’ll continue to politely laugh as you continue to read my terrible rambly writings. I promise to keep at it, and stop being so lazy.

Love and kisses,

Mrs Wang

mmexport1381658476107

Too many waiters spoil the will to live

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How many waiters does it take to serve dinner? Have a guess. And remember we’re not talking about a normal dinner in a normal country. How could we be?! This is Inner Mongolia – Weirdness Capital of the Galaxy.

It all started when my Chinese future husband and I were wandering around the restaurant section of Wanda Plaza, one of Baotou’s moderately swanky shopping malls, trying to decide what to shovel into our faces. Mongolian hotpot? Sichuan spiciness? Korean barbecue? “My Fashion Food”? I was getting kind of tired of all of them. Then we noticed that a new place had just opened. It looked quite fancy. Probably, it was worth a try.

Two extremely enthusiastic waiters swooshed towards us and showed us to a table, handing my Chinese future husband an iPad with the menu on it. How futuristic, I thought. Except that the menu app didn’t seem to be working. The two waiters looked at each other, leaned over the iPad, and got themselves into a very unprofessional state of panic.

After an excessive amount of incomprehensible Chinese chat, it seemed that the two waiters understood what we wanted for dinner. They shuffled off, and left the iPad with my Chinese future husband.

(Okay, I realise it’ll sound a bit creepy if I keep referring to him as my Chinese Future Husband. Especially since I’ve already kind of admitted to stalking him. I mean, we have been on, like, seventy eight dates in the past month, but it’s not like I’m thinking about buying my four Chinese wedding dresses and an assortment of fluffy penguin costumes for our ridiculously cute semi-Asian children. Or anything. So let’s keep things down to earth and call him Mr Wang.)

Anyway, where were we?

Oh yeah.

A couple of minutes passed and then the two waiters returned with two more waiters. They put a big pot on the tabletop hotplate, and then began to produce endless tupperware boxes full of vegetables and raw chicken and herbs.

One of the four waiters, a tall boy who looked about seventeen, wearing gigantic blue plastic glasses with no lenses, slowly opened one of the boxes. There was a sudden shriek from the distance, and another waiter swooped over to our table waving a plastic glove and muttering angrily at the tall boy.

The tall boy didn’t seem at all affected by his colleague – the head waiter’s – outburst, taking the glove and slowly putting it on. I had never seen anybody take so long to put on a plastic glove. It was as if he was used to living his entire life in slow motion. The other four waiters watched him in disbelief, then tutted and rolled their eyes when the plastic tore and his thumb stuck out.

Eleven lightyears and another plastic glove later, the tall boy started placing the chopped vegetables, one by one, into the pot. He did it so unbelievably slowly that I couldn’t decide if he was being really conscientious or if he was just trying to kill as much of his shift as possible. The other waiters and Mr Wang and I silently watched this spectacle of precision until it verged on hypnosis, and then I burst out laughing.

The tall boy then opened the box of chicken, and painstakingly placed each piece on top of the cut vegetables. The head waiter watched over every action like a hawk, occasionally swooping in to make tiny adjustments. It felt like I was watching a group of trainee surgeons perform open-heart surgery. Mr Wang and I looked at each other across the table and shared a kind of telepathic thought; something along the lines of, “Thank GOD this isn’t a first date, because it would officially be the awkwardest, most agonisingest ordeal in the history of human existence.”

And then, finally, the head waiter switched on the hotplate and put the glass lid on the pot. Sizzling commenced. The waiters left. Mr Wang and I finally started a conversation.

But WAIT! They’d forgotten to add salt and pepper!

The five waiters returned; tall boy holding a pepper grinder, walking slower than a fossilised slug.

“What would happen if this restaurant was full?” I said to Mr Wang. “If they need to hire five waiters for each table they’ll really need to put their prices up.”

Mr Wang laughed and immediately translated what I’d said into Chinese. The five waiters – and I – smiled awkwardly.

With dinner cooking in the pot at long last, I thought our unwanted company would finally leave and find some other work to get on with, but all five of them stayed put at the edge of the table, stirring the food at regular intervals. “Maybe we should invite them to sit down and eat with us,” Mr Wang joked, in English.

For a minute I actually thought they might, but eventually the head waiter announced that the meal was ready, and the troupe marched off. The tall boy hung around for a while, absent-mindedly leaning against Mr Wang’s chair, until he noticed me staring at him. Then he heaved a sigh and sauntered away, pushing his gigantic blue plastic glasses up on his nose.

Mr Wang and I picked up our chopsticks and commenced shovelling.

And roughly fifteen seconds later the five waiters returned – they’d forgotten, of course, to bring the water.

26 extremely valid reasons why I haven’t written any blog posts since forever (most of them involve food)

Ooh, arty.

Ooh, arty.

Dearest readers, please find attached (well, not attached, but if you keep reading you’ll get there) a long list of elaborate excuses as to why I have officially become the worst blogger in the cyber-cosmos. Some of them may seem a little far-fetched, but each and every one of them is true. I swear. Even the one where I almost got engaged to a Japanese businessman called Akira.

Are you sitting comfortably? (Because this is going be quite long and ramble-y. Seriously, maybe you should go and make a quick cup of tea before we start.) Ok, then. I shall begin…

1. I went to Beijing in January and inhaled so much smog that I almost died. So after all that exam nonsense was over I set off on a six-week Asian adventure to Japan, Taiwan and Hong Kong, to visit some much-neglected friends and eat terrifying amounts of amazing food. But before leaving the country I spent a few days in Beijing with Daniel. Unfortunately I couldn’t have picked a worse time to go. Did you read the news about the killer smog? It was bad, dear readers. Very bad. In fact, the smog was so worryingly thick that Daniel and I decided it would be much safer to stay inside his Dongzhimen apartment, under a duvet, eating takeaway and drinking soju and watching Sex and the City. Which is exactly what we did. And it was marvellous.

Mmm, smogalicious.

Mmm, smogalicious.

2. I went to Tokyo and couldn’t stop being amazed at all the stuff. I’d been to Tokyo once before, but way back in 2005, so it was great to go back. I spent my first day there aimlessly walking around, gaping in wonder at all the tall, swanky buildings and at all the polite, civilised people. People who patiently wait in queues, say things like “excuse me”, and never use their elbows as weapons. These people are also unbearably stylish – the Japanese all seem to be experts at that “effortless chic” thing. I felt a tad ridiculous arriving at Narita from Beijing wearing a reindeer scarf, zebra-print hat and leopard-print earmuffs (which in China, I swear, is the absolute height of sophistication).    

Fancy!

Fancy!

This is the Tokyo subway map. *Brainmelt*.

This is the Tokyo subway map. *Brainmelt*.

3. I got very drunk in Yokohama. And from what I recall, this is what happened: I met my friend Brenna in the afternoon-ish time, and we did all sorts of wholesome activities, like go on a giant ferris wheel and visit the Cup Noodle Museum (because the Ramen Museum is totally overrated). We were even befriended by a lovely woman in a soba restaurant who climbed a stepladder to pick flowers from a tree to give us. But then we started drinking. Like I said, from what I recall, we went to a party… somewhere… and drank stuff… and then took some trains… and drank some more stuff… and then ended up eating sashimi at 3 o’clock in the morning, while drinking yet more stuff. The next day, to recover from the night before, we spent the entire afternoon sampling beer from Yokohama’s many, many craft breweries. Which of course meant we were soon drunk again. Such is life.

Picking flowers, just for us.

Picking flowers, just for us.

4. I got snowed-in in Hokkaido and the only way to survive was to eat tons of ramen and drink loads of Sapporo beer. Ok, that’s a lie. But there was A LOT of snow. And there was a shovel at the door of my hostel which people actually had to use so we could get out the door. Ah, what a lovely hostel it was! Free coffee and toast and central heating, and other guests who became good friends. Together we visited the Sapporo beer factory (which is basically a very small museum above a very large bar, and therefore excellent) and the city’s little hidden street of ramen shops. Who knew you could order a bowl of ramen with a huge chunk of butter floating in it? My arteries still hurt thinking about it. But the snow, dear readers! It was beautiful! 

It was especially fun dragging my wheely suitcase through this.

It was especially fun dragging my wheely suitcase through this.

New friends Cyndi and Lee at Hokkaido University!

New friends Lee and Cyndi at Hokkaido University!

5. I ate so much sushi that I almost died. Have you ever had that feeling when you know you really should stop eating, but you can’t because it’s SUSHI – and not just any old sushi but HOKKAIDO SUSHI – and even though you’re almost certainly on the verge of death, and you know you’ll regret it for the rest of the week, you just somehow manage to keep shovelling it in? Well, I had that. So I should probably avoid all-you-can-eat sushi restaurants in future.

6. I was busy doing strange rituals at a “love temple”. I met my friend Etsuko in Kyoto and we went to the Love Temple to find out our fortunes. The first thing we had to do was close our eyes, make a wish, and touch a special rock thing, and then walk with our eyes closed to another special rock thing without peeking. Which was kind of hazardous considering how many crazed young women were attempting to do this at the same time. There was a lot of treading on toes and screaming. Then we had to pick a paper “fortune” out of a box, and mine translated to something like, “although you’ll have to wait ages and ages and ages, you’ll probably still find some bloke to get married to, so everything’ll be just peachy, innit”. 

Pick a fortune, any fortune...

Pick a fortune, any fortune… oh and by the way it’s 200 yen.

7. I stayed in a hostel in Kyoto and had to put all my energy into not killing all the Americans (no offence, Americans). It was one of those huuuuge hostels with a common room specially designed (with tatami) for irritating backpackers to sit about in all day comparing which Asian countries they’ve “done”. Normally I would have avoided this room completely, but there was free coffee there. And I just couldn’t help listening in on the Americans’ conversations, especially when they were Skyping their moms back home…

“It’s so hard here because, like, everything’s in Japanese, and literally nobody speaks English, so it’s, like, impossible to do stuff.”

“So in Tokyo we went to this, like, fish market, and I tried a bunch of stuff, but I have no idea what any of it was.”

“Ohmygod, the guys in Japan are, like, sooo cute! I met this totally awesome British guy in my hostel in Osaka…” 

I drank my free coffee and thought, Kill. Me. Now.

8. I stayed in a traditional ryokan and couldn’t get out of my futon/stop watching Japanese gameshows. I couldn’t understand the gameshows, but that didn’t make them any less entertaining. Especially since I could watch them from the comfort of my futon while wearing my yukata and drinking green tea.

Any idea what's going on here? Me neither.

Any idea what’s going on here? Me neither.

9. I became obsessed with green tea-flavoured stuff. I was in matcha heaven in Japan. Cake, ice cream, hot latte, iced latte, Lipton Matcha Milk… and when I found green tea shortbread in a bakery in Nara I think actually shed a tear of joy.

Bliss in a teacup.

Bliss in a teacup.

10. I discovered takoyaki. An Osaka specialty, it’s basically bits of octopus in batter, fried and topped with various amazing sauces. And it’s cheap and you can get it all over the city. YUM.

Shoji-san's takoyaki shop of wonders.

Shoji-san’s takoyaki shop of wonders.

11. I almost got engaged to a Japanese businessman called Akira. Shoji-san, who owned a takoyaki shop near my hostel in Osaka, recommended a local bar and said I should go and check it out. So of course I did. The bar was about the size of an aeroplane bathroom and was absolutely packed with tipsy men in suits. “Come! Sit!” shouted the barman, pointing to the one free stool in the room. I sat, and ordered a beer. The men sitting beside me eventually plucked up the courage to introduce themselves, via Google Translate, and before I knew what was happening I was knocking back pint glasses of sake and tomato juice with them. And then another man-in-a-suit came and joined us. “I am very much looking forward to receiving your telephone number,” he said, and showed me his company ID badge. His name was Akira. He continued, “We had a lot of snow here last winter. Rome was not built in a day! I love you!” I ordered another sake with tomato juice from the barman and asked Akira if he was from Osaka. “I love you! I need you! Marry me! We had a lot of snow here last winter!” was his reply. And so the evening continued.

Akira: “Rome was… not…”

Me: “built in a day?”

Akira: “Yes! I need you! Last winter…”

Me: “We had a lot of snow?”

Akira: “I love you! I am very much looking forward to receiving your telephone number!” 

When I decided to finally leave the bar everyone seemed genuinely devastated. “Come back tomorrow,” said the barman. “This is my wife!” shouted Akira.

12. I was busy taking photos of really old people taking photos of really old trees:

You can write your own caption for this.

You can write your own caption for this.

And this.

And this.

13. I was throwing magic beans at Tomomi (who was pretending to be a demon, obviously). The day I met my friend Tomomi in Osaka also happened to be one of Japan’s strangest festivals. “On this day every year, someone dresses up as a demon and everyone throws beans at them to drive out their bad luck,” Tomomi explained. Well I’m always up for driving out my bad luck, I said. So the only question was where could we purchase these special beans? “In 7 Eleven!” said Tomomi. Well of course! So we did the necessary shopping and then went to a park and took turns wearing a plastic demon mask and throwing beans at each other. And I can say for a fact that my luck has definitely improved since, so the ritual must have worked. For example:

14. I got invited out for dinner by two 70-year-old Japanese guys. Ai, a girl in my hostel, and I were wandering round the local neighbourhood looking for a place to eat, when two very enthusiastic and possibly slightly intoxicated gentlemen asked if we’d let them take us for dinner. Obviously, we said yes. It was hilarious.

Just an average night in Osaka, maybe.

Just an average night in Osaka, maybe.

15. I went up the Umeda Sky Building and OH MY GOD.

As the Lonely Planet says, it's like  "Arc de Triomphe meets Bladerunner"

As the Lonely Planet says, it’s like “Arc de Triomphe meets Bladerunner”…

And involves going up the scariest escalator ever...

And involves going up the scariest escalators ever…

To see views like this!

To see views like this!

16. I went to Taiwan and it was Chinese New Year and I ate so much food that I almost died. After Japan I spent ten action-packed days in Taiwan, which is probably the best country ever. I was lucky to be staying with my wonderful friend Meikai and his family, and that meant that I got to experience Chinese New Year in the proper way: with family, friends, temples, red envelopes, lottery tickets, card games, and (of course) a LOT of food.

Have you ever seen anything more amazing?

Have you ever seen anything more amazing?

17. I was busy going up and down mountains in Taiwan at a fzillion miles an hour with Meikai who should not really be allowed behind the wheel when there are hairpin bends involved. But what’s important is that everyone survived. So no need to worry, mother.

18. I couldn’t stop shovelling amazing Taiwanese food into my face. As you know, I’m quite adventurous when it comes to trying new food (must I remind you of the duck feet?) so every time somebody asked, “do you want to try ___?” I responded with an enthusiastic YES, OF COURSE… I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT IT IS BUT GIVE ME ALL THE FOOD NOW. And  I swear, everything I tried was beyond delicious. Even the stinky tofu. And the slimy oysters. And the mysterious black soup.

Mmm, stinky.

Mmm, stinky.

Mmm, slimy.

Mmm, slimy.

Mmm, mysterious.

Mmm, mysterious.

 19. I discovered Ice Monster in Taipei. Remember ages ago when I said that frozen yoghurt was the new ice cream? Well I have news for you, dear readers: Ice Monster is the new froyo. I went to this snazzy joint with my friend Vivian and ordered (on Etsuko’s recommendation) a mound of mango flavoured shaved-ice-stuff roughly the same size as a basketball. “I’ll never be able to eat all of that!” I exclaimed, before devouring the entire lot. And what a satisfying brainfreeze I had afterwards!

 20. I was writing wishes on a paper lantern and sending it into the sky, and it was ever so nice:

Original artwork by me.

Original artwork by me.

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Up into the stratosphere, or somewhere.

21. I went to Hong Kong and they have things like Irn Bru and pear cider and hummus there, and so I temporarily forgot about the outside world. But can you really blame me? 

22. I was watching another sunset from another skyscraper. I’ve decided that my new travelling “thing” will be to go up to the top of a skyscraper on my last evening in a country, take arty pictures of the sunset and get all sentimental about leaving.  On my last evening in Japan I went up the Umeda Sky Building, which was by far the best skyscraper I’ve ever been up (did you SEE the pictures?!), but the place was kind of overrun with affectionate sunset-observing couples and I felt a bit like a stupid foreign gooseberry. The top of Taipei 101 was more fun because I had Meikai to take arty pictures of the sunset with. But in Hong Kong, for the last night of my six-week Asian extravaganza, I was alone again in my skyscraper. And also it was so misty/smoggy that the view was sort of non-existent. But I still managed to get all nostalgic, and there was a coffee shop, so it was ok.

It's a long way down...

It’s a long way down…

23. I came back to Baotou and have gone mad and joined the gym. Please try not to die of laughter, but since I got back to Baotou (nine days ago) I have decided to turn over a new leaf and take some exercise. Which means I’ve been doing ridiculous things like running on treadmills and participating in “hot yoga” classes. Yes, dear readers, I know exactly what you’re thinking: why in the name of Genghis Khan did I wait a year after leaving INDIA to take up YOGA in INNER MONGOLIA? And the answer to that is… well, actually I have no idea, but I can tell you this: I did a headstand last night in a ten-billion-kajillion-degree room and I didn’t die. And the Chinese yoga teacher even kindly helped me when I got stuck upside-down, and he didn’t even laugh. Very much.

24. I have finally started studying Chinese. Seeing as I live in China and am surrounded by quite a lot of Chinese people, I thought it might be about time to consider expanding my vocabulary beyond “ni hao” (hello) and “ting bu dong” (I don’t understand). And so I have been in Baotou Library with my very patient friend, Dani, practising the four infamous tones and whatnot. So when a group of naked-but-friendly ladies in the gym changing room started a conversation with me the other day, instead of looking gormless I was actually able to say “I’m learning Chinese, but I can only speak a little bit.” To which they responded, in the typical Baotou way, by screaming and flailing and telling me that I’m beautiful.

Proof that I did some studying!

Proof that I did some studying!

25. I am busy stalking my Chinese future husband. More on that later, perhaps. 

26. I am getting ready to start another term of “teaching”. Yes, dear readers, the long holiday is finally over and I have to go back to work tomorrow. But now that I know my students (and am practically fluent in Chinese) it really doesn’t feel like work anymore, but more like chatting with loads of ridiculously friendly Inner Mongolian girls about life and love and what we ate at Chinese New Year. So I’m actually looking forward to it. All those weeks of travelling in all those places was incredible and fabulous, but there’s something about Baotou that I just love. You still might not believe me, but Inner Mongolia really is the centre of the universe.

The End-of-Spring-Festival fireworks in Baotou, last Saturday.

The End-of-Spring-Festival fireworks in Baotou, last Saturday.

Life, China, happiness, mojitos

(Note: the guy flying the Hello Kitty kite was by himself and about 75 years old)

Dearest readers,

Please accept my sincerest apologies for the extreme lack of blogginess over the last month. I expect you think it’s because I’m holed up in the middle of the desert and there’s nothing remotely interesting to write about. The novelty of ducks’ feet and donkey sandwiches has probably worn off, and all I probably do is go to work, day after mind-numbing day, to teach my 300 Cinderellas and Rapunzels that ‘the’ is pronounced ‘the’, and not ‘za’.

Well, my lovely, neglected readers, I would forgive you for thinking this, but let me tell you something: you couldn’t be more wrong! The truth is I’ve spent the last month having fun – ridiculous amounts of it – and I just haven’t quite got round to blogging about any of it yet.

(I mean, it’s not that I haven’t had plenty of free time, but unfortunately most of that’s been used up since Brandi gave me her Netflix password.)

The biggest highlight of the last few weeks was the Mid-Autumn Festival, where the entire population of China goes mental for Mooncake. These bizarre bakery products come in all different sizes with all kinds of weird and suspicious fillings. Like red bean paste, for example, which, like many Chinese delicacies, sounds repulsive, but when you finally pluck up the courage to try it, actually tastes quite nice. One of my students, David, gave me a whole carrier bag full of tiny, individually-wrapped Mooncakes (including coconut ones!), which I polished off in a far shorter time than I’d like to admit.

But believe it or not the best thing about the Mid-Autumn Festival wasn’t tripling my daily calorie intake with cakey goodness – it was the week-long holiday.

Because, beloved readers, teaching 26 hours of classes a week is tiring. And when you include all the other hours spent preparing lessons, grading and procrastinating, it adds up to a pretty long week. So I really should have spent the holiday having a nice, long rest and allowing my brain cells to repair themselves after being severely damaged by so much Chinese Nescafe.

But instead I went to Beijing and partied for four days.

And it was amazing.

For one thing, I met up with Mauktik, a writer and traveller who blogs far more extensively than me (and has written an actual book, and had it published). He’s in the middle of a one-year, round-the-world travelling extravaganza and it just so happened that his arrival in Beijing coincided with my week of freedom. I knew we’d get on from the moment this happened:

And I thought India was the country of bling?!

That first night back in the Capital was as bizarre and Beijing-y as it gets: weird, unidentifiable food; cheap beer; heated discussions about Hrithik Roshan’s lucky/creepy extra thumb; getting lost in the Hutongs; discovering a sinister karaoke bar with signs reading ‘No drug trafficking, No whoring prostitutes’; Tsingtao by the lake, and a trendy live band trying to sing in English in a bar with walls covered in semi-pornographic posters. What a fabulous city!

Ooh la la, etc!

Now, my gorgeous readers, the Lonely Planet will probably tell you otherwise, but there are only two things in Beijing which you can’t afford to miss. One is the street stalls that sell cheap mojitos, and the other is Daniel (but obviously you can have a combination of both). I met Daniel via my blog and our shared interest in India, and again it was just by chance that we got to meet up in China. He’s recently moved to Beijing to live and study, speaks about five thousand languages fluently (including English in the best Yorkshire/Spanish accent ever) and has a deep appreciation for mocha-frappuccinos, chai and Ikea.

(Yes, I am wearing animal ears, but EVERYONE wears them in China, I swear.)

For three days and nights, Mauktik, Daniel and I (as well as lovely Canadians, Chinese, Taiwanese and a handsome Argentinian) gallivanted around town as a multicultural gang of devastating fabulousness, fuelled by coffee and mojitos. We fought the crowds in Tiananmen Square, almost lost our voices at KTV, danced all night and sang to the taxi drivers on the way home. I wanted to stay forever.

But my surreal desert city was waiting. In the last couple of weeks Baotou has become cold and autumnal and beautiful. I need gloves to ride my bike now, and there’s frost on the ground in the mornings. My 300 Inner Mongolian students never fail to make my day (especially when they shout ‘SO BEAUUUUUUTIFUUUUL!’ at me in the corridors); I have a friend called Lisa with a kitten called Henry, and to top it all I’ve recently discovered where you can buy sugared doughnuts filled with red bean paste.

I must say, my wonderful, dazzling readers, that life is pretty damn peachy at the moment. And if I can tear myself away from Netflix I promise to write about it more often!

Yours,

Susanna

Susanna Wickes: shortlisted to be the new Empress of “Inner Mongolia”…

You can take the expat out of the internet, but you can’t take the internet out of the expat (or something)

Something terrible happened yesterday, my dear readers. Something I’m not even sure I want to write about for fear of having to relive the agony and turmoil. But then I realised I haven’t written anything for ages, so I shouldn’t really pass up this opportunity to write a new post.

My internet got disconnected yesterday. For eight hours. Yes, you did read that correctly: EIGHT HOURS! No, I kid you not!

Let’s just take a moment to consider the utter horror of this situation. I’m in the middle of the Gobi Desert, for a start. Completely cut off and isolated from the civilised world. Once you go beyond the towering jungle of ultra-swanky skyscrapers, miniature theme parks and inflatable pandas there’s nothing. For hundreds upon hundreds of miles. I know because I saw from the plane. And I double-checked on Google Maps.

And then there was the fact that I couldn’t check my email. I know yesterday was a Sunday, and I don’t even get that much email anyway, but to have the privilege of clicking  “refresh inbox” taken away from me was unbearably traumatic. All kinds of emails could have been waiting there for me, all kinds of people wondering why on earth I hadn’t replied yet. It was devastating.

And of course I couldn’t check facebook either. That was perhaps worst part. Being disconnected from facebook is like voluntarily moving into a dingy cave in the deepest corner of the Amazon rainforest (although these days I wouldn’t be surprised if Amazonian caves have wifi, but anyway) – you lose all perception of what’s going on in the world, whether it’s earthquakes, celebrity scandals or what somebody you used to go to primary school with just had for lunch.

Can you imagine how awful that would be, dear readers?

In preparation for moving to China – the country with the infamous Great Firewall – I downloaded a VPN, a Virtual Private Network, specifically to avoid the trauma of being blocked off from the outside world. All I do is open the program and click “connect”, and then it automatically “builds” an “encrypted tunnel” (whatever that is, but it sounds very scientific) to another, less internet-censoring city. At the moment my computer thinks I’m in Los Angeles.

But when China Telecom decides to disconnect your internet so it can “upgrade the system”, having a VPN is, of course, totally pointless.

So I tried hard to think back to the olden days when we didn’t have the internet. Back in a time where people used to have hobbies and participate in activities, and spend time face-to-face with other human beings. I remembered my childhood Garden of Eden – long summers spent playing outside, bike-riding, rollerblading – but instead of getting inspired to go outside, I screamed, swore a few times, restarted my computer and tried to get online again.

Finally, after a lot of screaming and swearing and restarting, I decided to just accept the truth, however painful it was: I would not be able to use the internet that day. I stopped thinking about the emails waiting in my inbox, forgot about my facebook notifications, did a few breathing exercises, made a cup of tea and read my book.

And it was okay.

I even managed to limit my reconnection attempts to once every half hour.

But finally, just before I gave up and went to bed (out of sheer boredom at 9:15pm) I gave it one last shot. Feeling hopeless and defeated I refreshed my list of networks, and found to my amazement that I had been RECONNECTED! Oh happy day!

It was the same sort of feeling (I imagine) that a long-term heroin addict experiences when he gives in and takes a hit in the darkest hour of the withdrawal period: absolute, indescribable bliss.

Who cares that I only had one email and only one person had liked my most recent facebook status?

Beijing to Baotou, Part Two (I have eaten some very strange things)

If you’ve just tuned in, you can read Part One here. That’s the part where I was eating ducks’ feet, so you probably don’t want to miss that.

On Monday morning I got up at the crack of dawn, said goodbye to the guesthouse cat and headed back to the airport with the same taxi driver who’d picked me up three days earlier. He seemed strangely thrilled to see me again and slapped me on the back and shouted something in Chinese. I smiled and nodded in agreement.

Unlike the sour-faced Mrs Aeroflot, the Air China check-in guy didn’t appear to give two hoots that my luggage was about twelve kilos heavier than it should have been, and pretty soon I was up in the air again. Flying to Inner Mongolia from Beijing is strange; once you’ve passed the city the layer of smog evaporates and you get a clear view down to the ground. And there’s absolutely nothing down there. Just hills, then fields, then desert. Then more desert. Then even more. And then before I had time to realise what was happening, we skimmed over the Yellow River and landed in Baotou.

Juliet (her English name) from the university was there to pick me up, and as we drove towards the centre of town she told me some facts about Baotou. “There are three districts here,” she said. “The old district; the new district, where the university is; and the really new district – ” she pointed at some cranes and partially-built skyscrapers.

My flat is on campus in the amusingly named Foreign Experts’ building, a two-minute walk from the English department where I’ll be working. I’ve never in my life lived anywhere as swanky as this. I have air-conditioning, central heating, a fridge, a WASHING MACHINE and a high-speed internet connection. And I don’t have to pay a penny for any of it. Jealous much?

That evening I went out for dinner with fellow foreigner, an English bloke who lives in a flat upstairs and has been teaching at this uni for six months. We (and his Chinese girlfriend) went to one of the many, many barbecue restaurants that are crammed into a busy street that runs alongside the East gate of the campus, and ordered lots and lots of meat.

Baotou is all about meat, you see. Meat meat meat, as far as the eye can see. A lucky vegetarian here would get depressed, and an unlucky one would die of malnutrition – although having said that, unless I start eating some fruit I myself may well die of scurvy before the year is out. Anyway, the point is that Inner Mongolia is non-veg heaven.

English Bloke said that there’s a local specialty in Baotou: super spicy chicken wings. He tried them once and barely survived, he told me. Ha! I thought, and said with confidence, “Well, since I used to live in India I think I could probably handle a spicy chicken wing…”

English Bloke and his Chinese girlfriend looked at each other, then looked at me. “Are you challenging me?” I asked.

The waiter brought out a metal skewer with a bright red chicken wing attached to it. I took a bite, and yes, it was spicy. Nothing I couldn’t deal with, though. But then the spiciness started to hit me. My eyes began to water, my lips started to burn. But I had accepted a challenge and I was going to complete it. I ate the rest of the chicken wing as quickly as I possibly could, then downed a glass of beer. I was in absolute agony. My whole body was on fire. Tears were streaming down my cheeks. It was far spicier than anything I’d ever tasted in India (perhaps even my terrible first attempt at aloo gobhi).

This torment lasted for about fifteen minutes. English Bloke seemed deeply amused.

The next night (which was last night, actually) the three of us met up again and walked through the city, this time to a tiny roadside restaurant that specialises in donkey meat. Yes, donkey. For 5 Yuan you can get a big piece of fried bread stuffed with freshly-cooked donkey meat – a Chinese donkey sandwich, if you will. Sounds horrible, you’re probably thinking. Well, actually, it was pretty damn tasty! In fact, I thoroughly recommend it to all you carnivorous types.

I think I need to calm this frenzied food tourism, though. Especially because I’m really not used to eating this much meat. The Indian diet suited me perfectly with all its vegetables and lentils and whatnot, so I’ll just have to find the equivalent here. Noodles, for instance. These noodles even have a picture of the Taj Mahal on them:

Anyway, besides the food, there’s loads of other interesting things in Baotou. There’s a strange supermarket that plays the same song on a loop all day (I know it off by heart after two visits – god knows how the poor staff cope); there’s a park with a lake and boats and roller coasters; there’s lots of tall, fancy, modern buildings and big, wide roads. And I’ve still not had much time to explore so this is just my impression after wandering along a few streets.

It’s bizarre to think that slap-bang in the desert in the middle of nowhere there’s this little, industrial, super-modern city (with roller coasters). “It’s like you’re living in some sort of 1970s experimental Polish art film,” my friend told me via email. And she’s pretty much spot-on, actually.

Beijing to Baotou: from bamboozling bizarreness to being beautifully blissed-out in the Back of Beyond (have I gone overboard with the alliteration?) Part One

 

So, my dear readers, we’ve got two options here: either I start from the beginning and describe everything that’s happened over the past five days in excruciating detail, or I write some sort of fancy narrative with a well-thought-out paragraph structure and lots of flashbacks. I think unfortunately I’m going to have to go with the first option because I can’t be bothered using my brain today. I’m still jet-lagged, you know.

So.

This story, like so many others, begins at Heathrow Terminal Four, where a sour-faced Russian woman (I had ignored the fervent warnings of several friends and booked my ticket to Beijing with Aeroflot) made me repack my suitcases three times before finally checking them in. “Is still too heavy…” she said with no emotion whatsoever. I stared at her pleadingly until she finally caved: “…but… is okay.”

On the plane I was sandwiched between a screaming Russian baby and a strange Russian woman who asked for a glass of water filled with lemon wedges, and then proceeded to eat each wedge one by one with a plastic fork. Skin and all. And to pass the hours of my Moscow stopover I drank a terrible cappuccino, which for some reason was served with a straw in it. I made a mental note to travel in Russia sometime so I could uncover these mysteries.

Anyway, I eventually arrived in Beijing. The passport-checking guy said “ni hao” and, amazed that I could actually understand him, I said “ni hao ma?” I totally thought we were on a roll, but I have no idea what he said after that.

Having said that, my Chinese drastically improved as soon as I got into my taxi because the driver seemed absolutely determined to teach me how to count to ten, both with the Chinese words and the special hand signals. He almost collapsed laughing at my pronunciation but when I finally reeled off all ten numbers in the right order he screamed “YEEEAH!” and gave me a high five.

From that point on I knew I was going to love it here.

Beijing is fantastic and crazy. Nothing like as crazy as Delhi, mind you, but any city that serves ducks’ feet in restaurants and shows a cartoon on the subway trains called “Happy Bread Ring” has got to be on the list of the World’s Strangest Capital Cities. On my first day I mostly concentrated on not getting lost, but got lost anyway and then finally gave up and went back to my guesthouse in the Hutongs of Xicheng District to eat noodles and play with the cat.

Saturday was spent drinking Japanese beer with a friend from Taiwan, and Sunday involved posh restaurants and coffee bars in Sanlitun with stylish Italian expats. On my last evening in the capital I met up with Yuan, a local Beijing-er who I’d met on the plane, and we walked all through the narrow Hutongs, taking photos and window shopping. “Let’s try some local food,” she suggested. “Okay!” I replied enthusiastically. “I’ll try anything!”

About four minutes later there was a plate of wasabi-flavoured ducks’ feet in front of me. Actual feet. With ankles and toes and webbed bits. “Try one,” said Yuan, picking up a floppy foot with her chopsticks and popping it into her mouth. “Many British people can’t accept this kind of food,” she said, chomping the toe-webs. Well I’m not ‘many British people’ I thought, and picked up a duck foot and shoved the whole thing into my mouth.

As I fought the gag reflex, my eyes watered wasabi-juice and I worked my molars through the crunchy, chewy, soft, hard, gristly, slimy duck foot. It truly was repulsive. But Yuan looked so proud of me that I grinned through my tears and said “it’s SO DELICIOUS” and reached for another one.

(All night I couldn’t stop reliving the feeling of chewing through those toe-webs. I’ll try anything, yes. But I won’t try that again.)

Thankfully we left the restaurant and got some fresh air and some milkshake-type-things, and started walking through one of Beijing’s popular nightlife spots near the Bell Tower. In every bar we passed a live band was playing, and buskers on the streets were playing their keyboards and wailing love songs. Eventually I hailed a cab to go back to my guesthouse, and the driver put on a CD of Chinese power ballads and hummed along as we drove through the neon-lit streets. I was in love with Beijing, but the next morning I would be catching my flight to Inner Mongolia…